Indie bands constantly push the boundaries of music—sonifying trends that play out in pop music years down the line. But up until recently, there was something that they couldn’t do: Put on a big lights, projector-heavy concert like you see when mega acts such as Madonna or U2 go on tour. But even this is changing.
Brooklyn, New York, band Yeasayer, backed by a fleet of visual artists coordinated and commissioned by VICE & Intel’s The Creators Project, is on a tour that’s redefining small-scale AV shows as grand, artistic spectacles. Their stage is filled with reflective, crystalline structures, which are perpetually wrapped in 3-D projections. The experience is largely the brainchild of Casey Reas, a famed software designer and video artist, whom Yeasayer approached to up the ante for indie band AV.
"In terms of the Madonnas and the U2s of the world, it’s not an aggressive stage show," Reas admits. "[But] in terms of the bands in their area, it’s extremely ambitious." How important is projection in Yeasayer’s new show? Put it this way: The band itself has four members. And on this tour, two new members of the crew will be at every performance, mixing video tracks in real time. In other words, 50% of the team is now handling video alone.
Reas hates emphasizing the technological components behind the artistry, but in the back end, a lot of innovations are making this possible. LEDs are a low-cost, low-power revolution in stage lighting. And in some cases, the software powering the visuals is less than a year, even six months, old. Reas coordinated a workflow of seven different programs that run simultaneously, passing a constantly evolving video buffer along the line. One program handles 3-D mapping, allowing engineers to set up in new venues quickly and intuitively (in hours rather than days). Another handles prerendered HD playback. Another handles real-time video modulation. "Every piece of software does what it does best," Reas says, forming an instantaneous, digital assembly-line production with a single goal: "For me, it’s really important, the visual quality of it, but the performability of it, too," Reas says. "How expressive the visual performer can be. Can they get to the level of performance of the audio performer to mix and merge the two?"
In one part of the show, the video crew is actually filming the band, augmenting their faces and then projecting that into 3-D space—all in real time. "It’s very much this surreal, alien image which is a very high-fidelity capture of the actual performance," Reas says. "That’s the most cutting-edge technology that we’re using."
Honestly, the creative team behind the show may be a bit overkill for the club-sized venues Yeasayer occupies—Aranda\Lasch developed the set’s crystalline surfaces, Yoshi Sodeoka created music videos for each song, Aaron Meyers coded new software behind real-time image augmentation and, of course, "Nick and Jay" are the two visual performers who will "take the stage" alongside the band each and every night. But possibly spending a bit too much is okay. For The Creators Project, it’s as much an investment for future AV artists as it is about a single fan experience on a single tour.
"People have probably been expecting to see huge visuals at concerts for ages, especially with stadium shows. What I like is this idea that maybe people might show up as much to see something visually and interesting as the band on a smaller level," creative director Ciel Hunter tells us. "Projects like this show that you can be innovative on any level, it doesn’t just have to be arena shows where the most exciting things are happening. I think it’s really exciting to see what happens when more people are working with it and being more adventurous with it."